Following the Assembly election on 5 May 2016, arrangements were put in place to allow the establishment of an 'Official Opposition' for the first time in the history of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This significant change to way in which the Assembly works was agreed during the Stormont House talks at the end of November 2015.
At that time, parties which were entitled, under d’Hondt, to a Minister or Ministers on the Executive Committee could choose to 'opt out' and form the Official Opposition, at the time d'Hondt was run following an election. The rules were changed as a result of the New Decade, Approach Deal in January 2020, to allow any party which wins at least 8% of the vote in an election to participate in what will now be now be known as 'the Opposition'. Also, a party will now be allowed to enter the Opposition up to two years following the formation of the Executive.
The New Decade, New Approach Deal also proposed a strengthening of the rights of an official oppposition
The role of the Opposition in the Assembly is to question and scrutinise the work of the Executive. From 2016, in addition to extra research and financial assistance, an official Opposition was entitled to additional speaking and questioning rights in plenary meetings, and the right to determine Assembly business on 10 plenary days per year. The New Decade, New Approach Deal proposed a strengthening of these rights and, following a review and report into the matter by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC), the Committee for Procedures proposed the necessary changes to Standing Orders. Changes to the rules about how the Assembly operates require require cross-community support. Most of the proposed changes were approved and the Opposition now has the following rights:
- Opposition business: where there is an opposition, in each session of the Assembly ten days shall be allotted for opposition business
- Ministerial Statements – where there is an opposition, the first question on the statement shall be asked by a member of the opposition;
- Topical Questions; where there is an opposition, the first Topical Question to a Minister shall be asked by a member of the opposition;
- Committee Membership - where there is an opposition, and so far as practicable, at least one seat on each statutory committee is allocated to a member of the opposition;
- Business Committee: where there is an opposition at least one member of the Business Committee must be a member of the opposition.
- Public Accounts Committee: where there is an opposition, the chairperson of the committee is to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition and the deputy chairperson is to be nominated by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (in the case of more than one party being in the Opposition).
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) formed the Assembly's first Opposition on 16 May 2016, when they declined, during the D'Hondt proccess, to nominate one Minister each. The Assembly's experience of official opposition ended prematurely on 24 January 2017 when the Assembly was dissolved for a 'snap' election following Martin McGuinness MLA's resignation as deputy First Minister, which collapsed the Executve.
When the Executive was restored in January 2020 and d'Hondt was then applied, the Ulster Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party accepted the invitation to nominate Ministers, as did all other eligible parties. Therefore, no 'Official Opposition' was formed. Other, smaller parties, not in the Executive Committee, perform an ‘unofficial opposition’ role, and Committees and individual MLAs contined to play their part in scrutinising the work of Ministers and Departments.
Following the election of 5 May 2022, the SDLP, althouth no longer entitled to nominate a Minister with only 8 seats, was able - under the new rules - to declare that it would be the official 'Opposition' and that Matthew O'Toole MLA would be leader of the 'Opposition'. (NB: If the UUP or another party entitled to be in the Executive decided to opt out to be in the 'Opposition', then the Opposition leadership role would be held by the largest party in the Opposition.